Charleston welcomes a lot of tourists every year. In fact, the area’s roughly 6 million annual visitors outnumber tri-county residents about 10-to-1.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to Venice, Italy, where the city’s 20 million annual visitors outnumber residents about 333-to-1. It’s not even as much as Myrtle Beach, where an estimated 15 million annual visitors dwarf the metro area population about 34-to-1.
But Charleston receives more tourists per capita than popular European destinations like Barcelona or Amsterdam, both of which are struggling to balance tourism and quality of life for residents. And more and more people visit every year.
Not surprisingly, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice all made a recent admittedly unscientific list of “Eight Places That Hate Tourists The Most” compiled by British newspaper The Independent.
“Hate” is a strong word, of course. But it’s no stretch to say that a lot of popular travel hot spots are at least a little weary of the attention.
Other places on the list included rural Thai islands that deal with an influx of as many as 4,000 tourists per day, and the Greek island of Santorini that recently struggled to cap the number of cruise ship passengers who can visit per year.
Charleston may not even be the tourism capital of South Carolina in terms of sheer numbers, but it has plenty in common with Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Santorini.
Like those destinations, the focus of tourism in Charleston is largely limited to a relatively tiny historic district. Area beaches are a draw too, but almost everyone visiting Charleston is going to make at least one trip downtown.
And that puts a huge burden on a small and geographically limited area surrounded by water on three sides.
Meanwhile, hotels are popping up at a relentless rate. Short-term rentals are pushing out long-term tenants in favor of a quick buck. Rents are rising. Restaurants and bars are catering to well-heeled tourists at price ranges increasingly fewer locals can afford.
The problems are similar in Charleston and pretty much any place on The Independent’s list. But solutions are hard to come by.
Amsterdam has mulled charging a tourist tax and capping the number of visitors per year. Barcelona has slapped Airbnb with huge fines for violating city rules on short-term rentals. The picturesque Italian region of Cinque Terre announced plans last year to start a ticketing system to limit tourism.
Venice, where the resident population is shrinking so quickly that locals could disappear completely by 2030, took steps this month to ban new hotels from its historic city center.
In contrast, a moratorium on new hotels in Charleston failed to get City Council approval earlier this year.
Maybe a moratorium will never get the votes, but a smarter policy is undoubtedly needed. Charleston should learn from its foreign counterparts and address tourism-related issues before they turn into full blown crises.
And the city is working on that. A Short-Term Rental Task Force is expected to offer finalized recommendations in September. Officials also are looking at ordinances related to accommodations zoning, hotel room limits, housing affordability, traffic and other hospitality-related issues.
That’s critical. Because the tourists keep coming. And we need a healthy, thriving Charleston to be able to welcome them.